Internal Family Systems–A Life Philosophy or Therapy?

Why am I writing this blog?  Because I am very attracted to the ideology of Internal Family Systems and its promise of healing, and find it very disturbing at the same time.  I’m hoping I may convince myself to have a more integrated point-of-view if I explore it.

I studied English literature and, at the same time (approximately), read philosophy voraciously.  I found statements, scattered here and there, written by novelists, poets and philosophers, about how metaphysics and the definition of human nature had fallen out of the hands of artists and philosophers, and that in modern life, psychotherapists had taken charge of defining reality and human nature, if not the relationship between heaven and earth.  Like most writers with a philosophical (and metaphysical) bent, I resented this.  And because I am a Pisces and hold on to resentments into eternity, I still resent it.  In fact, as time has gone by I’ve come to be horrified by the hold psychology has on our modern consciousness.  This doesn’t keep me from going to therapy, BTW.  But then, every time I go (particularly to couples therapy), I blog and make fun of the therapist.  So at least I get some amusement out of it.

Internal Family Systems, developed as a discrete model for approaching therapy, was developed by Dick Schwartz and is now the hip therapy to learn (along with Diane Fosha’s AEDP, which I am not attracted to) .  He’s an interesting guy–fairly unassuming as therapy gurus go–but then, since his model is derived from what his clients told him, he would have to be.  And he seems to encourage other therapists to apply his way of thinking to all aspects of life–coaching, co-counseling, political models, etc.  He’s not obsessive about holding onto and controlling his own ideology.

This is all to the good.

Internal Family Systems in based in Jungian theory (among others) that we all have a multiplicity of subselves that operate to protect us from life’s vicissitudes.  They may be archetypal, but they are, of course, a family of subselves, and family systems theory may therefore be applied to an understanding of the individual.  Schwartz classifies the different types of subselves and their relationships in this way (simplified):

  1. Protectors–Subselves who work to prevent an individual from experiencing unpleasant emotions.  For example, after a bad experience, a “Manager” Protector will come up with a strategy to avoid any experiences that might resonate to the original painful experience.  If a repeat starts to occur, a “Firefighter” Protector will introduce an extreme and immediately numbing behavior (like drinking, overeating, blaming/yelling) to shut the experience down asap.
  2. Exiles–Young subselves who carry the unwanted and painful emotions.  The Protectors want to keep the Exiles from being reactivated.
  3. SELF–The essential core of any person, creative, confident, compassionate, and able to heal and coordinate the other parts.

Of course, in all therapy, language is taught:  “I” statements, for example.  My partner and I joke all the time about saying, “I feel that you are an asshole.”  Or, “From my perspective, you are an asshole.)  We like to call this recovery with a license to kill.

Anyhow, in IFS (Internal Family Systems), languaging is taught as well, but goes even further.  Clients are taught to identify parts and to speak of them in the third person–to speak for parts rather than from parts. But IFS goes beyond languaging.  In order to do this type of therapy, in order to learn the language, the client must first agree to the construct–that there are subselves or parts, and that there is a dominant and central spiritual self with certain qualities and abilities.  Introspection as well as communication is guided by this understanding–the client looks internally for typical experiences of exiles, protectors, inner critics, etc.  And the client must seek, always, to be “Self-led.”

By the way, I do accept the construct of subselves and I also empirically understand the experience of an enlightened “self” within me.  I even find the concepts for introspection really interesting.

So what’s the problem?

Think of it this way.  Feminism teaches us to 1) listen to each other rather than to assume any one opinion or world view is best (opposite to the paternalistic, one right way approach), and 2) that empowerment comes from facilitating and supporting a person’s own vision and point-of-view, rather than correcting, reframing, controlling, or dominating.  In other words, basic respect comes into play.  It’s easiest to do this from a relativist philosophy, or from a Catholic (as in, pluralistic) understanding that incorporates many different perspectives or systemic approaches to the world and being human.

This is where IFS can run into trouble.  In IFS, the education is very explicit, and therapists can and often are dogmatic in practice.  In a session, for example, if you say how you feel, the therapist is likely to say, “You mean a part of you feels that.”  Then the therapist will explain to you whether that’s a protector or an exile, and may give lectures about how the different subselves relate to each other.

I may or may not disagree with this in any particular moment, but I have to return to feminism and say, isn’t it dangerous for someone to interpret another human being’s internal world, label its construction, and insist that this construction be memorized as a set-in-stone interpretation?  I have heard IFS practitioners say, “Managers ALWAYS elicit firefighters.  They can’t ever get along.”  I was like, really?  Subselves have prescribed relationships that never vary, individual to individual?  Man, that is a SCARY way to think.

Then, while I strongly believe that spirituality is the true foundation of human healing and human change, I worry about how specifically Self is defined in IFS, and how practitioners will say, “That can’t be a Self thought because of x, y, and z.”  The spirituality implicit in IFS is both its strength and its great danger, because often spirituality is taught as a belief system, and if people are taught a belief system, that’s usually called a religion or a cult.  And if clients are pressured into beliefs, the name is malpractice.  (I grew up Catholic, and believe me, there’s not a lot of difference between, “If you don’t accept x, y & z then you are going to hell,” and, “If you don’t accept x, y & z and see the world this way, then you won’t heal or your healing will take decades longer.”  Both are threats; both contain language to invoke shame.)

I do understand that Dick Schwartz developed IFS through observation, and since I took a workshop with him, I also know that he explains IFS specifically as a collection of observations about what clients had in common in explaining their inner lives.  I suppose, therefore, part of my problem is simply with the practice, with making the observation of IFS into dogma, and losing the impulse that Schwartz had originally–careful and present listening as the way to truly help.

I bristle at being told what to do, what to think, or how to speak, just as a matter of principle, and also, truth be told, because I like to rebel and be different (or I can’t help rebelling and being different, or I have subselves who rebel–firefighters and managers).  But I also find that the greatest challenge for all of us humans is to be present to what is, congruent to the present moment in our thoughts and behavior, and to be endlessly creative and adaptive.  We can’t phone it in.  Accepting thoughts or constructs or the stories we tell ourselves about why other people do what they do as gospel–well, I study Buddhism so as to quiet that insanity.  And it is insanity…all the righteousness, all the one correct way, is insanity.

So philosophy or therapy?  It is both.  And therein, as the man says, lies the rub.

The good thing is that thinking about IFS calls into question all therapy–which always contains a life philosophy, always contains a definition of human nature and the human mind, and must therefore always and continually be questioned.

Therapy, as a practice, is an art form, not a science.  (Sometimes science is an art form, but I won’t go into that.)  And we must be careful of each other.  Because one side of the couch or the other, we are flawed, even with our best intentions.  We can hurt each other.

As for me, I’ll probably keep trying this stuff, because I’m ridiculously curious.  But I’m also arrogant, so let me say that I hope to try it with someone who is close to my level of intelligence.  Otherwise, it’s all war, all the time.  Because no one gets to tell me what to think, what to say, and what inside me is nearest to the light.  If I let them, then I abdicate my independence of mind and spirit.  And how can that help anyone?


3 thoughts on “Internal Family Systems–A Life Philosophy or Therapy?

  1. This is an out-of-context quote from Karla McLaren, but I kept thinking of it as I read this post: “Let us gather ourselves into our own keeping.” Let us develop and retain and exercise inner authority. Thank you for exploring the topic.

  2. I have been in the online support group for awhile now. My conflict with this philosophy is that if one feels any negative feeling, it must be a false self as the True self only feels compassion and empathy, is always calm and serene. Where I believe to be emotionally intelligent doesn’t include becoming Jesus.

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